In Her Name is a dramedy about estranged sisters forced to confront their differences while dealing with family bankruptcy and their formerly-important-artist father’s terminal illness. Immersed in the absurdity of the Los Angeles art world they fall through the spiritual rabbit hole that is their childhood home. However tragic their lives remain, they find love again.
In Her Name is Sarah Carter’s feature film directing debut. It premiered at Tribeca 2022 winning her a People's Choice Audience Award. Canadian-born, Sarah Carter is known for her success as an actor starring in popular TV series Falling Skies, Shark, and Smallville. Working with and shadowing directors like Spike Lee, Judd Apatow, and Steven Spielberg, she discovered her own passion for writing and filmmaking and the social impact of original storytelling.
As a producer and CEO of her own house Cheshire Moon Productions, her first two features, A Pity and In Her Name, are currently on the festival circuit.
Her global experience working, living, and researching in countries like China, Indonesia, Ireland, India, and Caymen Islands for months at a time, inspired her love of humanity, and motivated her development as a creative. She has proven to have a uniquely lighthearted and powerful voice in conjunction with an eye for beauty and a universal sensibility. However quirky, her art is executed precisely and with technical proficiency. Grounded in composition she sets the stage to capture a raw sense of aliveness that transports both the players and viewers into a realm beyond logic and closer to truth.
Becoming a mother empowered her to confront a larger and more stable vision for herself, her family, and her collaborators. Fascinated by metamorphosis and liberation she is committed to her calling as a storyteller. With equal reverence for innocence and shadow, her work is infused with compassion, forgiveness, and wisdom and is an example of what can come through within the madness of life when the feminine is empowered to lead.
What makes you fascinated with the cinematic language and what was the first film project you worked on?
The first film I worked on was also my first audition as an actor. It was Mindstorm with Canadian legend Michael Ironside. I was 19 years old playing the role of his pregnant daughter. Michael sort of took on the role of father and protector both on and off screen, so I was in good hands and it didn’t take me long to feel at home behind the scenes. I quickly realized I’m a natural born circus freak.
I was an only child and lived in several different homes throughout my early years, my imagination was my safe haven and I became fast friends with anyone game for an adventure. I learned early on how to relate through made up worlds and, well, art I guess. Finding connection beyond convention is something I have always sought. Given the amount of pain and chaos in the world, I tend to be suspicious of any system that attempts to organize or control. So although I’ve grown to realize that pure authentic expression is somewhat unrealistic and can even be destructive when it comes to family and functional community, the artist and healer in me perpetually seeks freedom, beauty, truth, and radical acceptance of the nature of things. The culture of movie making lends itself well to my spirit. The pursuit of sharing and manifesting a unified vision that transcends systems that divide us.
So yeah, any universal language, art forms included, fascinate me as a filmmaker. I think it’s editor Walter Murch who describes cinema as the language of dreams. I’ve been known to dive deep into Jungian dream analysis, archetypes, and the power of fairytale symbology to permeate, inform, and integrate the deeper poetic layer our everyday lives. Cinema invites audience to escape their aloneness, shift their perspective of their realities, and access shared human heart through laughter and tears. It’s a gift that really does change lives. I think we all have a film that marks a pivotal moment in our lives. One of mine was watching Charlie Kaufman’s "Synecdoche, New York" by myself on Christmas Eve back when it first came out in 2008. The theater had opened it’s doors to the public, which attracted primarily unhoused people. That movie watching experience made me appreciate the power of cinema in a way I had never known.
As much as I love the epic aspect of cinema and that it’s meant to be enjoyed on the big screen in a full house of fellow movie goers, I am also moved by some of the simpler cinematic experiences available like Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” with iPhone quality camera work. I love the tension between what’s superhuman and inescapably human, especially in the action, sci-fi, and thriller genres - Kill Bill, anything by Quentin Tarantino makes me scream with delight, Baz Luhrmann - but I'm also a sucker for the lo-fi surrealism of David Lynch. To that end, it may be true that I'm most moved by the grit and simplicity of Indie Films. I’m a child of the 90s so - Reality Bites, Wendy and Lucy, Clerks, and Amelie are the first films that made me want to make movies. I think because they depict raw humanity up close and personal.
When a film maintains that intimacy of character while also creating a cinematic masterpiece (Andrew Dominique's Blonde, anything by Paul Thomas Anderson or Darren Aronofsky). The potential for taking people on an emotional dream-like journey that expands the heart and mind in a real way I’m all in.
In my opinion the films that pushed the envelope for cinema most this year are Tar and Everything Everywhere All at Once, with my favorite being Triangle of Sadness which In Her Name was in direct competition with at the Evolution Mallorca Film Festival in Spain.
To be in the game screening alongside this years top films - Empire of Light, Women Talking, Banshees of Ishirin - is a dream come true... showcasing genius in the absurd, and inviting audiences into worlds that bring us into a deeper understanding of our shared humanity… that is what fascinates me.
Please tell us how "In her Name" came to life and let us know about the process from screenwriting to pre-production and completion of the feature film.
Had I known we would be shut down for four months halfway through our shooting schedule due to a global pandemic, I never would have taken on one of the most extraordinary journeys of my life so far. With almost nothing to show for my skills as a director, I said yes to Erin Hammond and Ciera Danielle when they asked me to produce a film for them to star in. I was in pre-production for my first original screenplay, Girl Who Needed a Ride, and workshopping scenes from that project at Markland Studios when Erin and I first met. She knew I had produced a short film, shadowed directors throughout my acting career and co-directed music videos for my band SanguinDrake, and of course that I was about to direct my first film, so when funds fell through for Girl Who Needed a Ride at the final hour, she approached me with a vision of her own.
Erin called me up out of the blue one day asking if I would be open to directing her and her friend Ciera, who I had never met, in what they hoped would be their vehicle project. I was a new mother at the time and they were also mothers frustrated with the entertainment industry turning away from them. I wasn’t sure we could pull it off at first, but I had nothing to lose. As soon as I saw the quirky dynamic between these two women, I was inspired.
Although the story isn’t directly personal to any one of us, it is certainly a melting pot of our respective family woundings. The film explores how shared trauma affects us all in different ways, and how losing a significant family member can bring estranged people back together in the unwitting purpose of alchemizing the evolution of self and soul. Having recently lost my younger brother to addiction, I’m aware of the painful and often absurd family dramas that arise in times of grief. Particularly in the wake of an addict, the dynamics can unearth repressed layers of delusion, depression, and lies to be forgiven. With influences like Francois Truffaut, Fellini, David Lynch, and Woody Allen, I wanted the film to have a light-hearted and meditative quality to it, so the viewer could connect with the sadness of the film while navigating the plot with a sense of humor. What this film had going for it from the beginning was a lot of heart, compelling characters, incredible art provided by Erin, a vintage Nissan SUV, a simple location, and, like I said, not much to lose.
Out of pure faith and maybe naivety, we green-lit the project with only 80 grand in the bank.
Our cinematographer, Iain Trimble, was up for taking as much time as we needed for location scouting and designing shots. He was excited to shoot in black and white which was a vision I was warned against by several mentors. He challenged me to defend my ideas to him which ultimately served us. In retrospect, I can see that all of the challenges we faced to bring this film to life were necessary.
Many of those challenges were outside of our control. We had to stop production due to Covid, and when we were cleared to return, we had to do our best to make people feel safe while being realistic about the fact that there was no way to 100% guarantee safety on set. We dealt with the stress of the cultural climate, whatever California fire was burning that day, and the struggle to remaining fully present in each of our essential roles. All of these challenges led me to embrace a heightened sense of gratitude and awareness that nobody had to be there - everyone was choosing to be there - and if anyone had chosen not to show up, with such a small cast and crew, there was a good chance the movie wouldn't have been made.
The stakes made for an elevated surrealism that ironically cultivated maybe a false sense of safety… or, at the very least, shared purpose. The few days before we were officially shut down and forced to isolate, I was fully awake to what I would devote my life to. When we were able to come back to work to finish the film, I felt empowered to lead with a new framework ahead. I would make films, and support others to create and tell their stories by holding radical faith and engaging in a prayerful dynamic the call of art.
With my husband, Kevin Barth, editing the film, the process was as fortunate as it was intense. Fortunate because we were stuck at home together with nothing else to do but think about both my film and his ("A Pity"), which I was producing as well. I thought we would be done in four months, but it was a year later we began the submission process to festivals.
I was told to only submit to the big ones. I did not take that advice and submitted my film everywhere and anywhere I found interesting. I was rejected by almost 50 small festivals before I got the email from Tribeca. I had to read it several times and send it to a few friends before I could believe it was real. Not only did we premiere at one of the big ones, we came away with an audience award and incredible press. All of that is to say that if we had been accepted into the smaller festivals first, our film would never have received the recognition it deserves. Again, a disappointment that turned out to be in our favor.
From Tribeca we have gone on to screen at dozens of festivals and collect accolades while bonding with the incredible independent film community.
As far as distribution after the festival circuit goes, it looks like we’re going to sign a non-exclusive distribution deal via the new Tribeca streaming platform. The film will be available to stream in North America by 2024.
It blows my mind that this all started as an idea between three friends. When you find the right collaborators, anything can happen.
This Yoko Ono quote is one of my favorites. “A dream you dream is just a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” That idea is what my production company, Cheshire Moon Productions, is founded on.
What was the most challenging aspect of working on an indie feature film?
About three days before we were forced to stop shooting (when it wasn’t clear yet how bad the pandemic would become), I had to convince everyone to stay on set while also honoring their very legitimate fears and concerns. I found that the most effective way to do that was to genuinely recognize each person’s freedom to be there or not and allow them to come to the decision themselves without pressure. This taught me the very real magnetism of the project itself. Finishing the film would officially become a miracle I would have to believe in. Once we were on our Covid hiatus, I ended up rewriting the film to reflect prevalent themes we were dealing with as a collective at the time that were eerily aligned with our story of estranged sisters… the fragility of ego… narcissism… unforgiving political splits… false narratives generating excessive fear… It was a remarkably confronting time of reevaluating what exactly I wanted to say with my film.
The shoe-string budget made things challenging but imposed some effective limitations to stretch the creative process as well.
Generally, the relentless waves of challenge ultimately served.
What is it like to produce, direct and write a feature at the same time?
It was refreshing to not have to answer to anyone or wait for anyone’s permission, and a relief to know that everything was coming through a pure channel.
Because of my training and experience as an actor, I step into characters as my way into the vision. I imagine myself in the environments, the circumstances, and I trust what moves me, what images and ideas, impulses, lines, props, choreography, camera moves, connect me to the heartbeat of the project. What moves me will move my cast and crew, and so the audience. I feel my way through, and encourage everyone I work with to give themselves that same freedom to challenge and play with whatever I bring to the table. I think that’s what gave In Her Name a distinct but uniform feel while maintaining an aliveness and unpredictability in the way our colorful cast of actors carried the story.
It was like I was holding space for the soul of the film to be born. My approach to filmmaking is a lot like being a mother. It's a lot to manage, but at the end of the day there’s nobody better for the job of caring for your project than yourself.
How was the premiere of the film in Tribeca and what is your plan for further distribution of the film?
New York City has been the home of my dreams and my dreams coming true for as long as I can remember. Not only was I celebrating the premiere of In Her Name, but it was my filmmaking debut. It was exciting and humbling and just so special to have that moment at Tribeca. Then to win the Audience Award was unbelievable. Awards shouldn’t matter, but what mattered to me about that one was that it told me In Her Name had been seen, felt, and loved.
As far as distribution goes, we have the non-exclusive deal with the new Tribeca Platform I mentioned earlier, and I plan to stay another year on the festival circuit.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
I’ve been shopping my script Girl Who Needed a Ride with the intention to direct. My hope is that now having proven some degree of capacity as a filmmaker, we’ll be able lock in finances and to jump into production within a year. In the meantime, I’ve been fielding a few co-writing and directing-for-hire opportunities. There’s a biopic in the works for a story that takes place in Canada and features a Canadian icon. I’ve been hearing the call back home lately.
What is the most creative aspect of directing a project for you?
Everything, really. I love location scouts, designing the shots, blocking and rehearsing with the actors; I love building the sets; I love rehearsals and workshopping ideas with the actors. I would say, though, the moment we start setting up to shoot a new scene is the most rewarding part of being a director. You come ready with what you have rehearsed, but you end up throwing most of it away to honor and capture the fresh energy of the moment. Whatever obstacles may come up, from weather to wardrobe to sets to illness and injury to lighting, really become about making lemonade. However focussed and intentional, shooting is a wild process. But if I’m honest, post production might be the most creatively fulfilling part of the process. It’s where the puzzle truly comes together and reveals the film that was always meant to be… the sound design… music and music composition… I got to work with my husband in post production, too, which was a blessing. I wouldn’t describe it as easy, but we definitely settled into some kind of telepathic state at points.
Does the language of cinema stand out more than other arts to you? And why?
I would say that film stands out in so much as it can encompass all art forms. I do love that about making movies. I think that’s why I was drawn to making a film about artists and the art world. But thinking about it, similar to still photography, I love the way cinema captures and plays with light in a way that we overlook in our daily lives. We are all so profoundly affected by light and yet we rarely acknowledge that. Making this film is the closest I’ve come to being able to share the way I play with the unseen world. By bringing darkness to light and light to darkness we can create beauty, or simply create intentionally, giving access and insight to heart stories and mystical realms. In a way, the language of cinema is largely light work.
What kind of impact would you like to have in the world with your film projects?
My mission is to exemplify the simple truths that offer hope and freedom amidst the insanity that is our human condition; to soften edges and gently wake people up from their own limited perspective if for no other reason than to have a good laugh with them rather than at them. Through shared story, I hope to encourage others never to give up on life.
Why do you want to make films?
I guess it’s just what I do. I wrote my way into my first professional acting gig through a local competition. Winning meant being flown out to Vancouver to meet with agents and casting directors, and within a year I was living and working in Los Angeles. As my life in Hollywood took off there was this feeling of no looking back, that failure was not an option. The lines blurred between living my dream and what others perceived as most important: family. I learned to trust something in between. I learned to trust myself, and that there is a creative edge to live on where anything is possible as long as the artist can tolerate the constant ego-unravelling that happens while simultaneously seeking a sense of truth and impact on the world. I now have a unique faith in life’s madness, in the void, and in vulnerability. I want to be able to share that and continue to create opportunities for people to experience the transformative nature of art while in the creative process or by receiving the medicine of the art itself. For me, filmmaking is a shamanic art.